Good morning! Jordan here, reporting from this morning’s Wake Up Workshop. This morning we will be learning from Lia Wallace, College Prep Programs Manager for ASC Education  (she also runs the ASC Theatre Camp) about audience contact. Audience contact is an artistic choice for the ASC, however for Shakespeare it was an inherent staging condition due to universal lighting being his only option.

Any time an actor is on stage they are trying to do something, usually to their scene partner. At the ASC though, actors have another option. They can use the audience instead, in a variety of roles. The first category is assigning. Lia and a volunteer explore the “Assign” option through a scene from Merchant of Venice between Portia and Nerissa where the two women recount Portia’s previous suitors. For their first pass through the scene they act as if in a proscenium stage with the fourth wall solidly  in place, as it would be done in a conventional theater without universal lighting.

The scene is a difficult one for actors and audiences. The two women speak for over eighty lines of prose about characters that the audience will never see. How can actors engage the audience and get them to come along for this meandering joke-sposition? Lia and her lovely assistant proceed to go through the scene a second time, using the staging conditions of the Blackfriars. They proceed to cast various audience members as those different suitors, giving the audience someone to connect the joke to and a relationship, however fleeting, to invest in. Even those not selected as suitor material are more engaged because they could be next, and so they are more motivated to follow the action. The fact that the action is easier to follow with specific characters to focus on also helps.

Audience members in the workshop felt special for being assigned a part, because all of the attention is now on them. Then the whole audience experiences a shared thought, “Oh my God, it could be me next!” That realization could be one of excitement or anxiety, but it brings the audience both together and into the play. These assignments don’t need to as specific as Portia’s suitors. The audience can become soldiers, citizens, party goers, whatever and whoever the actor needs. This tool does require an experienced actor; they need to be able to read the audience and pick the right members to single out for the best result.

The second category is “Allying,” recruiting audience members to your side. This can be done with just a look in a scene, but it is most useful in the world of a soliloquy. By allowing the actor audience contact, you allow them to use their full actor toolbox from scene work in a soliloquy. Hamlet can genuinely ask his questions to the audience as opposed to simply pondering them to the air, changing a scene from possible pontification to a sincere search for the truth.

The third is “Asking” (Lia is a lover of alliteration). By asking questions to the audience, the actor incites the audience to do the cognitive work required to answer that question, even if that response is never voiced. If an actor asks the audience (usually a specific individual) a question and then pauses for a response this activates an audience response. If the actor ignores what the audience provides, it breaks the audience-actor contract. An actor experienced with audience contact can take the audience response, whatever it may be, while still using text, and use it to further the scene and deepen the connection. These moments can be some of the most memorable experiences in the Blackfriars.

Lia recalls a performance of QI Hamlet where the character of Hamlet was played by Ben Curns, a veteran actor. When Hamlet asks if he should Kill Claudius now, while he is praying, Curns took that question to an audience member. The boy responded with a vehement “Yes.” Curns then took the next line to him too, reasoning out that if he killed Claudius now he would go to heaven and that’s not what Hamlet wants. The boy agreed to his logic and the play went along as scheduled.

Another instance involving Ben Curns was in a production of Romeo and Juliet where Curns was playing Mercutio. There was a moment where Curns would go along the gallant stools asking them for high-fives. He usually received a mix of high-fives with varying levels of excitement. Then one show an audience member panicked and gave him a handful of Skittles. While it was unexpected, Curns knew that he had asked the audience to engage and he had to take what they gave him or risk breaking the audience connection. However, he had lines to say, a duel to fight, and no pockets for Skittles. The entire audience knew that this was unplanned and was held in a moment of shared tension with the actors. Almost instantly, another actor (with neither lines nor a duel) stepped up, took the Skittles out of Curns’ hand, thanked him and the audience member, put them in his mouth, then returned to his place as the scene continued.

Workshop attendees then got to experiment with different pieces of text while Lia provided redirects, pointing out moments in the different pieces that could work well for audience contact. There are no right answers for audience contact, simply necessary components. Eye contact is key for audience engagement. Medical studies have shown that eye contact does all sorts of things in the emotional connection parts of your brain, and the ASC’s use of audience contact was a direct result from their use of universal lighting. That universal lighting allowed for actors to make eye contact with audience members, igniting that actor-audience connection.

The audience is always available, but the audience is usually trained to be polite but you never know what you are going to get. It could be a panicked look, but it could be a handful of Skittles. All actors can do is be as prepared as possible and be present with the audience, ready to connect, engage, and collaborate.

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